Jingdezhen. 1000 years of porcelain in Museum Prinsenhof Delft

Painting the vase p photo by Aart Kooij

Museum Prinsenhof Delft brings the history of Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen to the Netherlands in 90 masterpieces. These range from early Song Dynasty porcelain (c. 1000 AD) to Mao’s porcelain statues and contemporary Chinese tableware. Curator and passionate porcelain lover Suzanne Klüver: “Jingdezhen is the cradle of Chinese porcelain. Porcelain of the highest quality has been made there for ten centuries: as thin as paper and as white as jade.”

While Delft became world famous as a porcelain city by adding the city’s name to the pottery, the original and largest porcelain city in the world, Chinese Jingdezhen, is hardly known. The exhibition travels through the city and its history. In addition to 1000 years of porcelain in 90 objects, photos by Aart Kooij (1961) bring the city to life. His photos open the doors to the porcelain factories and show the secret of the craft and production that was once defended tooth and nail.

Everything’s possible
Long before the Netherlands discovered Chinese porcelain, it was already one of China’s greatest export successes to countries such as Japan and the Middle East. Klüver: “You can see the Chinese commercial spirit here. The Chinese adapted the designs to the taste of the destination country, with motifs and shapes that were used there. For example, there is the Japanese Ko-sometsuke porcelain. Or the cup warmers for the Middle Eastern market. These were normally made of metal, but the Chinese imitated them in porcelain.” From the 17th century, Chinese porcelain was exported to the Netherlands in increasing quantities. The famous Delft Blue is a copy of the famous blue and white Chinese porcelain. According to Klüver, the Delft story is only a footnote in the history of Chinese porcelain, just like the 18th-century Chine de commande porcelain, in which the coats of arms of noble European families were made by order. Klüver: “There is so much variety. That’s exactly what the exhibition aims to show. It puts familiar things in a larger context.”

The secret of the Kaolin
The Chinese managed to keep the secret behind their famous porcelain for over 800 years, until the Germans discovered in the early 18th century that you need kaolin, a type of clay that also occurs in a certain area of ​​Germany. Klüver: “Kaolin is found in large quantities in China around Jingdezhen. Hence, Jingdezhen became the centre of China’s porcelain industry. The clay has the unique property that it can be baked at a very high temperature. The small clay particles stick together so well that the porcelain is very strong, very waterproof and also very white.” The fact that today we don’t associate porcelain with strong but with fragile is because kaolin made it possible to produce extremely thin earthenware. Klüver: “The word porcelain comes from the Italian porcelana: sea shells. The resemble the shiny and fragile nature of porcelain.”

Logistical adventure
From the 17th to the 19th century, the porcelain trade was a major logistical adventure. Klüver: “Jingdezhen is about 400 kilometers from the then nearest port city, Hangzhou, on the east coast. Transport was over rivers, because porcelain cannot be shipped over land due to the nature of the product. Then, in Jakarta or Batavia, it was transferred to Dutch ships. So if you ordered porcelain with your family crest, it could take 2 to 3 years for it to arrive and you just had to wait and see how it looked. Because, of course, you couldn’t change anything and there was no way to complain either.”

Comic on a fishbowl
A highlight of the exhibition is a fishbowl from the Kunstmuseum Den Haag: the porcelain is painted in a kind of comic story, from the firing of the ovens to the production of the bowls. Klüver: “An animation has been made of this for the exhibition. It is interesting that 19th-century porcelain is also shown in the exhibition, as it’s less well known. It was the age of the opium wars, but right through all the wars, Jingdezhen reinvented and reinvented itself. The 19th-century porcelain is enormously varied and colourful. The last room deals with the 20th century, when more industrialization took place as a result of communism. The exhibition includes Mao’s famous white porcelain statues and a copy of the crockery specially designed for him. And in this way, Chinese history has always been part of porcelain production.”

When asked about her personal fascination with Chinese porcelain, Klüver’s eyes lit up: “Ceramics feel so good. It’s wonderful material. It’s slippery, it shines. You can make it as colourful as you want and the craft fascinates me. For me it is important that you can eat and drink from it. Myself, I eat from 18th-century plates from China. If they break, too bad. That’s life. If I don’t use them, they lose their meaning. Whether you put flowers in a vase that is hundreds of years old, or whether you drink a glass of wine from a glass from centuries ago, you show respect for the object. Such a thing does not want to be unused in the closet!”

Hands off!
If you want to know what our ancestors used for eating and drinking, thanks to Jingdezhen’s porcelain, visit Museum Prinsenhof Delft. But with a small caveat… Klüver: “In the museum context, you’re not allowed to eat or drink from the exhibition objects! But if you suddenly get hungry, you can always start collecting them yourself or participate in the online workshop porcelain painting.”

Jingdezhen. 1000 years of porcelain
Until 9 January 2022
Museum Prinsenhof